Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential nominee in U.S. history, received twice as much religion coverage in the media during the 2012 race for the White House as President Barack Obama, whose Christian faith was questioned, a new Pew study shows.
A study, released Friday by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that while 35 percent of the religion-related stories focused on Romney, Obama's coverage was at 17 percent.
Romney's religion-related coverage often raised questions about how his faith would be received by voters, and religion stories on Obama often dealt with incidents in which his Christian faith was challenged, including rumors that he is a Muslim, the study found.
The analysis noted that media's religion coverage peaked during the primaries, when several Republican candidates – including Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum – spoke about their Christian beliefs, fueling speculation about whether white evangelical Protestants would withhold support from Romney because of his Mormon faith.
The biggest single religion-related campaign story came when Dr. Robert Jeffress, the influential pastor of a Dallas-based megachurch, publicly called Mormonism a "cult" last October, according to the study.
Religion coverage picked up again when Romney clinched the nomination and named Rep. Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as his running mate in August 2012. They became the first non-Protestant ticket in the GOP's history. But once the general election campaign started, religion coverage subsided, as neither Romney nor Obama made much effort to refer to religion.
The study found that merely 8 percent of the religion stories were prompted by statements or actions from the Romney campaign. For the Obama campaign, the figure was even lower, at 5 percent. The GOP primary candidates were much more vocal about religion, prompting 22 percent of religion references in the media during the campaign, it noted.
Nearly half of all the religion-related stories studied (45 percent) dealt with how religion might impact the race, focusing on which candidate was winning among particular religious groups. The coverage also dealt with the candidates' beliefs and values. In all, 34 percent of the religion coverage focused on faith as a character issue or mentioned it in passing as part of a candidate's biography. There was far less coverage (16 percent) of how religion might impact policymaking or governance.
The study also noted that media belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) often sought to prepare Mormons for increased scrutiny while maintaining distance from politics. It cited the example of Church News, an official LDS news outlet, which issued a statement acknowledging Romney's candidacy while firmly reiterating the group's political neutrality.
The analysis shows that a striking feature of the 2012 race is how little the subject of religion came up in the media, as only 6 percent of the election-related stories in major news outlets contained any reference to religion.